Input Fort Wayne: As Nonprofits Keep Serving During Covid-19, Northeast Indiana’s Foundations Are Helping Them Survive

May 6, 2020


When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the Fort Wayne area the second week of March, the United Way of Allen County was one of the first organizations state-wide to develop an emergency relief grant for those in need, says Executive Director Matthew Purkey. Purkey

A former U.S. Marine and a serial United Way director, Purkey moved to Fort Wayne to lead the United Way of Allen County on Feb. 3. (He technically still lives in Dayton, Ohio, where his family is finalizing the sale of their house.)

When the pandemic hit Northeast Indiana, he and his new team and board needed to spring into action, and it was trial by fire.
“I joke when I say every new leader of an organization should have to go through a crisis immediately,” Purkey says.

Since the United Way typically serves the county’s ALICE (asset-limited, income-constrained employed) population, it knew that these residents would need relief as soon as possible. Following the lead of other United Ways across the country, its board swiftly approved a $100,000 Emergency Relief Fund to get money into the hands of residents as quickly as possible, Purkey says. But while this pandemic was hitting their key population, they knew they couldn’t carry the weight of relief on their own.

“This couldn’t be a United Way initiative; this had to be a community initiative,” Purkey says. With that in mind, United Way convened a meeting for the city and county’s broad swath of foundations and community stakeholders, and when it did, the Allen County community showed up. “The way we were able to align all funders from different sectors around a single cause, I was amazed,” Purkey says. “When you join a new community, there are some things you are told will never happen, but it did, and it happened immediately.”

Across Allen County, about 40 representatives from foundations and organizations, including United Way, the PHP Foundation, the Foellinger Foundation, the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, the Parkview Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne came together to form the Emergency Relief Council.

The goal of this council is to use United Way’s initial grant as a springboard to take a streamlined and unified approach for COVID-19 relief efforts county-wide, and it’s all focused on the data-driven needs identified in the community needs survey, too, Purkey notes.

So far, the group has raised a collective $2.8 million from local, state, and national foundations, including a whopping $2.25 million gift from the Lily Endowment Inc.

To date, they have granted $200,000 of those funds to support 15 nonprofits, focusing their efforts in three key areas: 1) immediate needs for food and shelter, 2) impending rent and utility assistance, and 3) long-term support for frontline nonprofit organizations, so they can retain their employees and services after the pandemic.

The Emergency Relief Council is currently determining what the needs for rent and utility assistance are going to look like going forward in Allen County, Purkey explains.

“Right now, the ALICE population can’t be evicted, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to have to pay rent,” he says. “We see a housing crisis coming to Fort Wayne very soon.”

Speaking of housing, another way United Way is supporting residents on the frontlines of the pandemic is by convening a nine-county quarantine center for the region’s homeless population. This helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 among a highly vulnerable group and those they interact with for social services.

To make it happen, United Way partnered with the Lutheran Foundation and the YWCA to set up a center in about 120 hours, Purkey says. It’s fast and effective, frontline changes like these that he sees being United Way’s role to play in the County’s future.

“This pandemic has given us a prime opportunity to pivot and adept immediately according to our community’s needs,” Purkey says. “Moving forward, that’s where we want to be—on the frontlines of community needs, whether that’s finical giving, advocacy, or volunteerism.”

For the time being, United Way is providing another avenue to convene support for local nonprofits—not just financially, but also with volunteer-from-home opportunities and resources.

On its website, it’s listing the urgent needs submitted by various Allen County nonprofits.

“If there’s something your nonprofit needs, we’ll add it to the list,” Purkey offers.

While Allen County is home to many nonprofit organizations, early projections of the COVID-19 crisis estimate that as many as 40 percent may not have enough cashflow to survive the pandemic.

As healthcare workers and residents fight to flatten the curve of the virus’s spread, Fort Wayne’s foundation community is doing everything they can to lower the fatality rate of nonprofits, as well.

“These nonprofits are critical elements of our community that have lost their funding and are still serving our community,” Hayes says. “My hope is that people buy gift cards to restaurants and shops, but remember that local nonprofits are still counting on donations, too.”

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